Pitch Perfect 2 (B-). Second verse—same as the first! Anna Kendrick (Into the Woods) returns as Beca, a leading member of the national-championship-winning Barden Bellas. (That’s a college a capella singing group, in case you missed the first one.) A wardrobe malfunction during a performance attended by President Obama gets the Bellas suspended from stateside competitions, and their only shot at redemption is to win the world championship. You can guess at the trials and tribulations that pad out the movie. And I do mean “pad”; at 115 minutes, the film suffers from several long dead spots. And, like the original, it is unnecessarily vulgar—especially in scenes involving Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson, Bridesmaids). But there are also several chuckles to be had, and the elaborate musical numbers are pretty entertaining. Although most of the Bellas graduate from college during this installment, new freshman member Emily (Hailee Steinfeld, The Homesman) can provide a bridge to future sequels if Pitch Perfect 2turns out to be an artistic triumph makes a ton of money. Elizabeth Banks (Our Idiot Brother) both appears and makes her feature-film directorial debut.
Paddington (B-). This family-friendly movie about a marmalade-loving bear has gotten strong reviews, but I thought it was only slightly better than passable. Paddington is a talking bear who travels from darkest Peru to modern London in search of a new home. Strangely, Londoners are completely unfazed by the presence of a bear in their midst—or by the fact that he can talk. Alone and friendless, Paddington is taken in temporarily by a kindly family headed by Henry (Hugh Bonneville, TV’s Downton Abbey) and Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins, Never Let Me Go). A wicked taxidermist played by the beautiful and talented Nicole Kidman (Trespass) is hot on Paddington’s trail, although it is beyond bizarre that a talking bear would be more valuable stuffed than alive. I guess kids would like it, and this has to be Nicole’s highest grossing movie (about $76 million to date) in a very long time.
Rebecca (B). This is the 1940 classic directed by Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train) and starring Joan Fontaine (Suspicion) and Laurence Olivier (Clash of the Titans). I quite enjoyed it. Fontaine plays a rather naïve young woman who is traveling through Europe as a companion and personal assistant to a rich American woman. In Monte Carlo she meets Maxim de Winter (Olivier), a wealthy Brit whose wife Rebecca has died only about a year earlier. They marry after a whirlwind romance . . . but Maxim seems to be tormented by memories of his deceased wife, and back at his fabulous estate Manderley, the second Mrs. de Winter finds that Rebecca still seems to haunt the place. Why won’t Maxim talk about Rebecca? And what is the deal with the creepy head maid Mrs. Danvers? See the movie (which won the best picture Oscar and a raft of other nominations) and find out!
Avengers: Age of Ultron. (B+). This film is a fun, entertaining Summer action blockbuster film. It’s got all the usual characters—Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downy Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). And of course, there’s even some screentime for Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson). With all the characters, you almost wonder how writer Joss Whedon has time to develop the characters and the story. But Whedon is no newcomer to this. There’s time to develop a little backstory—particularly for Hawkeye and even time enough for a little budding romance. And there’s time to develop an action packed story arch with the unintended creation of Ultron—a super android (James Spader). By the end of the film we are introduced to a new superhero—Vision (Paul Bettany), who teams up with the good guys to help defeat Ultron and his army of super-being androids. There’s plenty of action in this film but I have to say that after a while some of the fight scenes in this film began to seem a little too similar to the fight scenes in the last Avengers film. I just hope that’s not a sign that the franchise is wearing thin. Certainly, there will be more to come. And you will want to stay for the credits so that you’ll get a glimpse of the next villain to do battle with the Avengers.
Sense and Sensibility. This is a new stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel by Kate Hamill, and it was my first experience with a Dallas Theater Center production. It was excellent, so I urge you to see it before it closes next weekend. It is the story of loving sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. They find themselves in reduced circumstances after their father dies unexpectedly, and since this is Austen, the plot naturally turns on whether they will find happy marriages despite their precarious position in society. Sensible Elinor loves shy, stammering Edward Ferris, while passionate Marianne falls head over heels for the dashing but perhaps not entirely trustworthy Willoughby. Fine performances all around. I was surprised that the actors were not miked, but I was sitting in the fifth row and could hear everything fine. I do wonder if the folks in the back could hear as well. It makes me want to go back and rewatch Emma Thompson’s 1995 film version, and maybe even the cheesy remake From Prada to Nada (2011).
Maggie (F). Perhaps the “F” grade isn’t quite fair—if you want a movie that will simply make you feel bad, this one will do the trick. Otherwise, I urge you to steer clear. It’s kind of like The Fault in Our Stars, except in Maggie the attractive young woman has the zombie virus instead of cancer. Which is way worse, of course, because at least cancer sometimes goes into remission. Arnold Schwarzenegger (Batman & Robin) stars as a simple Midwestern farmer, trying to eke out a living in a post-zombie-apocalypse America where law and order have been reasonably well restored. Unfortunately, his sweet teen-aged daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin, Zombieland) has been bitten by one of the hungry undead, and in this version of the zombocalypse, victims live on for six to eight weeks before finally succumbing to the virus. So for 95 minutes, we get to watch Arnold watch his beloved daughter slowly turn all grey and veiny and gross. It is a long, depressing slog.
Ex Machina. A-.What does it mean to be sentient? I think, therefore, I am. These are questions that are central themes of this film. The film opens with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, known for playing Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter series) having won an special internship to work for the founder of the company he works for, which is a large internet company. Caleb is whisked off to a remote location, where the reclusive founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), reveals that he believes he has developed a sentient android. Caleb is tasked with testing the android to ascertain whether it is, in fact, sentient. For Caleb, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The dynamics that follow between the very odd founder Nathan, Caleb, and the android are fascinating and surprising. No spoilers here. If you are a sci-fi fan, by all means, go see this film. I, for one, can imagine all sorts of awesome sequels and I do hope that there will be one. Performances by all the actors are terrific.
Clouds of Sils Maria (B-). The reviewer for the Dallas Morning News loved this movie, but I found that I only liked it—and half-heartedly at that. Juliette Binoche (Summer Hours) stars as Maria Enders, a successful French actress of a certain age who lately has “gone Hollywood” by appearing in some big sci-fi pics. While traveling in Europe with her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart, Adventureland), Maria is approached about starring in a revival of the play that launched her career some 20-odd years before. But this time, she will playing Helena, a pitiful middle-aged woman, and not Sigrid, the 18-year-old firebrand who upends Helena’s world. This is a slow, talky movie, and although I’m about Maria’s age, I couldn’t really relate to her. Nor did I think Stewart’s performance was anything to write home about. She was pretty much the same character she always is, expressionless and vaguely melancholy. Chlöe Grace Moretz (Hugo) adds a dash of interest as the Lohanesque actress who signs on to play the new Sigrid.
Cinderella (B+). I managed to catch this latest live-action fairy tale before it disappeared from the theaters, and I’m glad I did. It was charming. But first I should mention that there’s a new Frozen animated short before the show. It was cute. Elsa (that’s the sister with the snow magic, right?) is trying to throw her red-headed sister the perfect birthday party–but she has a head cold that threatens to unleash all sorts of magical mayhem! Then there was the main feature. It felt very faithful to the animated original–so much so that summary is probably superfluous. Lily James (Wrath of the Titans) is a beautiful, kind, and humble Cinderella, and Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) is fine as the nasty stepmother. Helena Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows) makes for an eccentric fairy godmother. Of course, it’s a fairy tale, so the characters are a little two-dimensional. But director Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) delivers lots of gorgeous visuals, and those plus James’s winning performance were enough to make the movie a winner in my book.